The development of the world’s largest lithium deposit is being secretly orchestrated by China as the country seeks to dominate the market for electric car batteries.
According to a report by Business Insider, development of the Manono project in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is being pushed by a group of Chinese businessmen who are close to the DRC government.
Demand for lithium is expected to rise from 233,000 tonnes this year to 405,000 tonnes in 2022 as demand for electric vehicles and electronic devices continues to soar.
China has sought to control the supply of lithium and its battery companies have been buying up production around the world. This included the $4.1 billion purchase of a stake in Chile’s SQM earlier this year, which is estimated to give China control of about 50% of global production.
China’s next target appears to be in Africa, where the lithium deposits are thought to be vast but comparatively undeveloped. The biggest resource is expected to be Manono, which may contain more than 1 billion tonnes of lithium-bearing ore and has been described as “the world’s largest undrilled lithium resource”.
The license to explore Manono was held by a company called Manomin from 2013 to 2016, when it was suddenly revoked by the DRC government. The license was then awarded to Dathomir Mining Resources, whose first director was Min Guo Wei – an influential Chinese businessman in the DRC.
At the time, Min Gui Wei was also the executive director of Sicomines, a $6 billion bilateral trade arrangement between the DRC and China that allows the African country to swap mineral resources for infrastructure such as roads and power stations.
When Min Gui Wei stepped down from Dathomir he was replaced by Cong Mao Huai, who has been described by Africa Intelligence as the “godfather” of Chinese mining interests in the DRC. He is reportedly the man who gets mining concessions arranged for Chinese companies in the DRC.
In January 2017, Dathomir struck a deal with an Australian company called AVZ Minerals to explore and develop the Manono field. At the time, AVZ was run by Klaus Eckhof – who had previously worked with Cong Mao Huai at Panex Resources, another Africa-focused minerals company.
AVZ acquired a 60% stake in Manono leaving Dathomir with 10% and Cominiere, the DRC state-owned miner, with 30%. In return, Dathomir took a 13.9% stake in AVZ.
The Chinese influence over AVZ has continued with Huayou Cobalt acquiring a 10.4% stake in the Australian company and various supply deals being done with other Chinese companies.
According to Business Insider: “While AVZ is officially the developer of the world’s largest lithium resource, dig a bit deeper and it is clear that the driving force behind the Manono project are Chinese businessmen. If Manono fulfils its promise, it seems likely that China will further consolidate its control of the strategic lithium market.”